After thirteen years, five studio albums, ten million album sales, breakdowns, clean ups and the dizzy swell of global success, Placebo needed a change. As the world tour for their 1.1million selling fifth album ‘Meds’ wound to a close in 2007 after eighteen months of rapturously received arena shows across the globe – taking in scenes of fandemonium and stadium appearances in Chile, Mexico, Brazil France and Germany – they found themselves a broken band.
“At the end of the ‘Meds’ tour Placebo was a band only really in name,” says Brian Molko. “The ‘Meds’ tour for us was a really successful tour. We were able to build upon what we had worked really hard at doing as far as our live following was concerned, over the past ten years. We could really start to see the fruits of our labour this time in terms of the amount of people that were coming to the shows. But when you’re sat on a tour bus and no-one is talking to each other and people are avoiding eye contact with each other and people are saying to each other ‘it’s not fun anymore’ then you really need to readdress what’s going on within the dynamic of the band and it was basically all due to the breakdown of personal relationships. It became obvious to myself and to Stefan (Olsdal, bass) that without a personnel change within the band there would be absolutely no way for this band to continue.”
So shortly after the tour finished, Steve Hewitt – Placebo’s drummer since 1996 when he took over the stool from original sticksman Robert Schultzberg on the eve of the band’s first major hit ‘Nancy Boy’ – left the band. Having made four albums that have sold over a million copies each (1998’s ‘Without You I’m Nothing’, 2000’s ‘Black Market Music’, 2003’s ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’ and ‘Meds’ in 2006) and circled the globe together countless times, it was an understandably emotional split.
“Being in a band is very much like being in a marriage,” Brian explains, “and in the 21st century marriages seem to run their course, and this is kind of what happened within Placebo, we grew apart as people. I think what we were looking for from the band and what we were trying to achieve somewhere along the line had completely splintered and we’d gone off in different directions.”
Still brimming with new and vibrant ideas – “we still had new musical avenues to explore,” Stefan puts it - Molko and Olsdal returned to the form of one-on-one writing that had started the band back in 1994. Their contract with Virgin had expired after ‘Meds’ and, reluctant to throw themselves back into the major label machine, they grasped the opportunity of complete artistic freedom and decided to self-fund their sixth studio record, setting out with the vague intention to make a starburst of a record.
“I wanted to make a record which was very colourful,” says Brian, “because I felt that ‘Meds’ was pretty dark and pretty down and there were certain moments on ‘Meds’ that were probably the bleakest moments musically and emotionally that we’d had in our career. I wanted to do something a bit more upbeat and optimistic, almost psychedelic in a true sense of the word, not necessarily inspired directly by psychedelic music but full of colour. I wanted to do something that had a libidinous quality to it.”
By the summer of 2008 they’d amassed eighteen new songs, the most fresh material they’d ever taken into the studio. They’d also amassed a new young drummer, 22-year-old Californian Steve Forrest, whom they’d first spotted playing with one of their US support bands Evaline in 2006. “He captured our attention,” Stefan explains. “Standing side of stage, we thought ‘this guy’s got something’.”
“It wasn’t until over a year later when news got out that Placebo was a man down,” Brian continues, “that lots of drummers started getting in touch, one of which was Steve Forrest. One of the criteria was that we wanted to find somebody who hadn’t been successful before, who hadn’t been in another band that had sold a lot of records or had a big live following. We were looking for somebody whose enthusiasm could rub off on us, who would experience all of these things that we’d already experienced for the first time and for their excitement to raise us up out of our jadedness and make us into kids again.”
The songs they’d written – several born from a writing stint Brian spent on a river boat moored in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower - demanded production muscle. They turned to producer Dave Bottrill, largely impressed by his work with Tool. “We really wanted to do something sonically that was enormous,” says Brian. “There’s a lot of people you can work with who can do that but I think one of the most enormous sounding bands on the planet is Tool.”
Recorded over three months in Bottrill’s Toronto studio and mixed in London by My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails supremo Alan Moulder, the new album ‘Battle For The Sun’ is a startling, alive, vital and boundary-vaulting Placebo record. From the scouring rock of ‘Kitty Litter’ to the epic title track, the New Order-ish ‘Happy You’re Gone’, the stadium-surveying ‘Speak In Tongues’ and ‘Bright Lights’, the most upbeat pop Placebo song ever recorded, it’s swathed sparingly in strings and brass, as big as it is ballsy. It is, according to Brian, “not hard rock and it’s not pop, it’s probably hard pop. I think we’ve made a record which is almost the flipside of ‘Meds’. We’ve made a record about choosing life, about choosing to live, about stepping out of the darkness and into the light. Not necessarily turning your back on the darkness because it’s there, it’s essential, it’s a part of who you are, but more about the choice of standing in the sunlight instead.”
And out of the shackles too. When it came to discussions on releasing the record, Placebo took the brave and uncompromising step to either secure licensing or distribution agreements for the record with a number of smaller labels in each territory – beginning with a distribution deal with PIAS for Europe - so as to own the record themselves.
“It left us with a little bit of a bitter taste in our mouth to be part of such a huge corporation where a contract is a contract and it’s hard to get out of,” says Stefan, “it’s a bit shackling. The industry is changing, you’ve got to move with the times and in a way the control is reverting back more to the artist, the industry is in a bit of a slump, so we wanted to more carefully pick and choose how our records were going to be released.”
The line-up of Placebo Mark 3 made a memorable live debut. Midway through mixing the record an offer from MTV Exit, a charitable organization working to raise awareness of human trafficking, invited them to headline a semi-acoustic show in front of Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia in December 2008, an offer they couldn’t refuse bearing in mind Brian had been there on vacation a few years earlier and had come back begging to organise a gig there.
“It’s carving out a little place in history for yourself,” Brian grins, “to be the first band to headline a gig in front of a twelfth century Buddhist temple is really not too bad a thing to have on your CV. We were asked to do a semi-acoustic show and we took it to mean if it’s semi-acoustic then it’s also semi-electric so instead of trying to strip everything down to acoustic guitars, to try to rearrange our songs in a slightly more mellow, spaced out way and create a unique evening that was perhaps never going to be performed that way again.”
Their growing schedule of European festival headline dates certainly won’t be ‘stripped down’, that’s for sure – already the band have announced headline shows at Rockness in Scotland, Rock Werchter in Belgium, Poland’s Heineken Open’er Festival, the Arras Festival in France, Sweden’s Siesta Festival, Rockwave Festival in Greece, Sziget Festival in Hungary, Pinkpop in Holland, Spain’s Bilbao Live, Rock Am Ring and Rock Im Park in Germany, Norway’s Quart Festival and Provinssirock in Finland, touring a six-piece band including a violinist.
“I’m very optimistic about the future,” Brian smiles contentedly. “I’m in a positive frame of mind and a good head space. It’s very exciting. There’s a lot of life in the old dog just yet.”
Let the ‘Battle’ commence…!!