Twenty years after Placebo's first album, the frontman talks about saying no to "karaoke competitions" and giving up on being a punk.
This is the VICE Interview. Each week we ask a different famous and/or interesting person the same set of questions in a bid to peek deep into his or her psyche.
Placebo frontman Brian Molko is an absorbing character. Since erupting into the mainstream two decades ago, he's sat on the knife-edge of popular culture, remaining both a queer outlier and a "no fucks" presence at major mainstream events. He's an essential icon of the last two decades' changing views on sexuality and identity.
Twenty years on from their debut album, he's every bit as vital a force. As Placebo celebrate their career with a "20 Years" retrospective box-set and tour, we sat down with Brian to chat urine, The X Factor and how packing in the drugs made him realise he wasn't a punk.
VICE: Is there anyone, apart from your partner, that you're comfortable being completely naked around?
Brian Molko: My father used to walk around the house naked when I was a kid, and I didn't need to see that first thing in the morning! So yeah – I don't do that around my son. I suppose the only other person who really sees me in a state of undress is my make-up and wardrobe assistant. But we've been working together for six years now, so she doesn't really bat an eyelid. I change my pants – I put on new pants when I go on-stage. Clean pants!
Do you have "special" pants?
Yeah! I have show pants. I used to have a pair of lacy women's underwear, which used to be my lucky pair of panties. I used to wear them on-stage when I felt like I needed a little bit of extra mojo.
Did it work?
Yeah, psychologically it helps! You're sat there wearing an elegantly cut suit and underneath it you're wearing women's underwear. You're playing guitar and singing in front of five to ten-thousand people, and they don't know it!
Redressing the power balance a little bit.
We used to do quite a lot of meet-and-greets for competition winners, until I got molested by one of the competition winners, then we had to stop. Since then, I do them very rarely. But what I used to do before the meet-and-greets, is I would go to the bathroom and purposefully pee on my index finger and then not wash my hands. All the competition winners and Placebo fans that I met that day would walk away with a bit of my pee on their hand. And they never knew it! They're all walkin' away with a bit of Molko DNA… I don't do that any more…
When was the last time you said "no" to something relating to your career?
Yesterday. Unfortunately, I can't say what it was but it was a very significant business choice – one that could have been incredibly profitable, but myself and Stefan [Olsdal, Placebo bassist] said no.
Is that something that happens often, then?
Yes, very much so. Otherwise we'd end up on boxes of fake Nespresso capsules like my dear old friend Robbie Williams. I think a band is defined more by what they say "no" to than what they say "yes" to – and to a degree, an individual human being as well. The easy thing to do is to say yes, especially if there's a great deal of money involved. I turned down The X Factor in France. I'm bi-lingual, I speak French, but there isn't enough money in the world that would get me to do one of those karaoke competitions.
Was that to be a judge?
Yeah – they offered me a million euros. But based on the fact that I think these karaoke competitions are a majority shareholder in the ruination of pop music as an art form, there isn't enough money in the world to make me want to do that. So yeah – I'm the guy who turned down a million euros. We're driven by doing what we think is the right think artistically, rather than financially or in a careerist way.
Is that difficult?
I don't know. You just know that you wouldn't be able to able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning. Being able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning – you can't put a price on that.
What would your specialist subject on Mastermind be?
Pop music from the '80s. I think it's a much-maligned decade when it comes to pop. I consider pop to be an important and significant art form, which is why I'm so angry at all these karaoke competitions ruining it. If you go back to the '80s, you'd have songs in the charts like "Ashes To Ashes" by Bowie, which is a fucking freaky song, man. It's really weird, musically, and it's about heroin withdrawal, and this is in the top ten! Around the same time you had Kate Bush shouting "babushka, babushka, ya ya!"; you had Peter Gabriel doing really weird avant-garde music. All these records were in the charts, and these people were discovering new technology. Because of that they were really pushing the envelope of what mainstream music could be.
Do you think that's been lost?
It's totally homogenised now. Because of the karaoke competitions, it's generally accepted that there's one way to sing a ballad, and there's one way to sing an upbeat song, and that's it. Which, of course, is absolute bullshit!
Is there anyone out there doing interesting things, do you think?
To be honest with you, I haven't heard anything good by any white people in a long time. Anything that's stuck its head above the bullshit has been by black artists – whether it's R&B or hip-hop, or however many sub-genres there are of that now, the only thing that's actually been experimental in any way has been music composed by black people. Whatever you think of Kanye as an individual, or as a person – however many Kanye interviews you read or watch on YouTube and are completely flabbergasted by – the guy is a fucking major talent. Jay-Z's just brought a new record out – this is where the innovation is happening. It's certainly not happening on Simon Cowell's label. I don't think I've heard anything white in pop that's been any good for about ten years.
If you could live in any time period, which one would you pick?
Oh, that's easy! I would be about 22 in 1967. I'd live in San Francisco and I'd live the hippy dream. I always used to think that I was a punk at heart, but that was the drugs. When I gave up the drugs, I got shitloads less angry and started studying Buddhism and meditating. I just turned into an absolute hippy! That's probably my true nature – I think the drugs were making me angry. So yeah, I would live the hippy dream. I'd try to make my way into the front door of the Grateful Dead house in San Francisco.
When do you think you were in your sexual prime?
Ooh! My sexual prime has to be with whoever I'm with. I'm in a relationship now and I have been for over two years, so I'd say now! I'm also genuinely very, very, very much in love, which Is really important. In the old days, when we used to indulge in the whole groupie thing, nine times out of ten you'd discover that for them it was all about the thrill of the chase. Once they got you into bed, they just turned into a plank. It's very much dependent, for me, on the emotional connection and on love.
Weeing in the shower – yes or no?
Of course! I don't understand people who think it's disgusting. They're washing their ass while they're in there… What's the big deal?
And to round up – how often do you lie in interviews?
Actually, this has been one of the most honest interviews I've done – I haven't told a single lie! When I lie in interviews, it's usually through omission, rather than bare-faced invention… or wording something to make it sound more glamorous than it actually is. But I've been completely honest in this one.