Placebo – Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal – do not want their interviews to take place via video call. Instead, I ring them at their individual London homes, one after the other. After 25 years together, they prefer to speak separately. They're also exactly how you'd imagine: cynical, but not humourless. Molko laughs often during the course of our interview. At one point, when I ask him where hope lies, he takes a deep breath before exclaiming “Ooh la la!”
Given the themes at the centre of their upcoming release, their avoidance of the camera shouldn't come as much surprise. Never Let Me Go, the cult band's eighth studio album (and first in nine years), is an expedient rumination on modern life: one lived under the threat of imminent eco-catastrophe, the mercy of modern surveillance capitalism and the constant thumb of tyrannical profit motive.
The tracks they have released so far do not have traditional music videos but “visualisers”; still photos of Molko and Olsdal filtered and warped like an old Windows screensaver. For a band whose glamorous, psycho-sexual image seemed inextricably tired to their identity when they first gained popularity in the mid-1990s (who could forget the frosted pink-lipped video for “Nancy Boy”, or the now-iconic cherry red visual for “Teenage Angst”?) this may seem like an unusual change in direction.
“We've had shitloads of time to think about the demands that are placed on us – being photographed and fetishised and surveilled – and how it makes us feel,” says Molko. His voice has a compelling charm – not dissimilar to the iconic, reedy voice he sings in. “I guess we're a little bit less willing to sacrifice our feelings and our souls to the band.”
People have always been obsessed with Placebo's image. But now, people are equally obsessed with their own. “We were also thinking about how nobody presents themselves in the world today without some kind of filter, so we thought that we would take that Instagram aesthetic and push it as far as we could with distortion and filtering,” says Molko. “We figured that it would create images which would resonate today and would help us cope with our shyness coming back into the limelight.”
Someone brave enough to wear a leather skirt and a t-shirt emblazoned with the word “hypocrite” to perform on CD:UK at the height of the UK’s macho “Cool Britannia” phase may not immediately scream “shy”, but Placebo’s lustre lies partially in the fact that they are far too extraordinary a band to be easily categorised. As a teenager who liked both Britpop and grunge and many other things in between (crazy!), part of what drew me to these beguiling boys in eyeshadow singing about drugs and bi sex was the sense that what they were doing was not so much a pointed statement about anything as it was them just being their authentic selves and telling everyone else to deal with it.
“Absolutely, you hit the nail on the head,” confirms Molko. “This philosophical opposition to Britpop and lad culture was something created by journalists to give what we were doing context, but we were just trying to express ourselves in the way that we needed to – which was cross-dressing and wearing makeup. Britpop were following in a certain tradition, and I suppose we were following in another tradition.”
Attempting to pigeonhole artists into neat and tidy genres has been happening since music writing began (probably), but something that seems to have changed over the course of Placebo’s decades-long career is the ever-growing tendency for people to willingly categorise themselves in this manner. As modern life has become increasingly overdetermined by the algorithms of big tech, it has become more atomised and solitary; a real sense of personhood replaced with cross-platform-compatible identity signifiers.
“The only thing that I like in boxes are the guitar pedals that surround me in my studio – they look great in boxes,” chuckles Olsdal when I present my theory to him. “I think the way that we've chosen to present ourselves has been not to give everything away… Read into it what you want and create your own ideas. Placebo has never been about putting ourselves into a box, or anyone else for that matter.”
Having parted ways with their long-time drummer Steve Forrest in 2015 and fresh off the back of a gruelling two-year long 20th anniversary tour that soon turned into a “soulless exercise”, the new album was born from a place of both apprehension and excitement. “We began to feel like wax effigies of ourselves,” Molko says, “being moved around the world for the purposes of entertainment. I think I reacted against that commerciality when it came to thinking about what tone and sonic palette this new record was going to have.”
On the flipside, the tour had left Osdal feeling low in confidence and disillusioned with the band. They were playing the same songs from the past, night after night. “When we got back together to embark on this album, it was with trepidation from my side… I didn't know if I had it in me,” he confesses. “But Brian was brimming with enthusiasm and when he showed me this photo, which became the cover, it just felt right. It was like leaving something behind and looking out into the future somehow.”
Upon finding themselves alone in Olsdal’s home studio with a blank canvas and no third musician for the first time in forever, the pair realised they could basically do whatever they wanted. They plugged in everything they had, which included a lot of keyboards, and “spent days on end just falling down different wormholes of guitar pedals”.
They eschewed their normal process (going to the rehearsal room for three months, jamming, writing, then going into the studio) in favour of doing everything backwards. Song titles were chosen before songs had been written. The cover was chosen before the album was made. “For me, it was also about trying to create discomfort,” Molko reflects. “My friend and mentor David Bowie always used to say `if you're feeling comfortable, you're doing it wrong.’”
Never Let Me Go is a synthesiser-led soundtrack to the end of the world: a society defined by claustrophobic horror, inconsolable despondency and brief, euphoric glimmers of hope. “Surrounded by Spies” oozes paranoia and disappointment at the world its narrator has found himself in; “Happy Birthday In The Sky” harks back to the despairing melancholy of 2006 release Meds; “This is What You Wanted” finds Molko’s unmistakable voice vibrating with quietly angry, contemptuous resignation.
But there are also brief rays of weak, wintery sunshine: “The Prodigal” incorporates joyous, driving strings influenced by The Beatles “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Try Better Next Time” is a curiously upbeat song about the end of the (human) world with a repeated refrain of “Grow fins / Go back in the water” as a darkly comic solution to the impending apocalypse.
“When I talk about the environment, I really don't think that people should listen to me because I have climate depression… I look around and it's difficult for me to get optimistic,” says Molko. “I think it's important for people to have hope, and I don't want to come across as some kind of harbinger of doom, but I do wonder if we're already past the point of no return, unfortunately.”
Olsdal is a little brighter. “As humans we're very complex – there's fight in us. Even when you're having a bad day, there's still the day after where you wake up and want to put one foot in front of the other and do good somehow.”
When Molko and I finish our call so that I can ring up his bandmate, he tells me in an impish tone to “ask Stefan about the mystery meat” but will not elaborate any further. Unfortunately, Olsdal seems to have no idea what I’m talking about, and the mystery meat remains, ultimately a mystery. Somehow, I feel this suits them both just fine.
Never Let Me Go is out on the 25th of March 2022.