Placebo is one of the defining alternative rock bands of the past 20 years and they are celebrating that fact with the release of their retrospective album, A Place For Us To Dream — 20 Years Of Placebo, which includes not only their biggest hits, but also well-known collaborations with iconic artists such as David Bowie and Michael Stipe.
The band, started by the Scottish/American vocalist Brian Molko and Swedish bassist Stefan Olsdal, is also releasing the Life’s What You Make It EP with six previously unreleased tracks, including the new single “Jesus’ Son” and a cover of Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It.” The album and EP are set for release on October 7th, just a week before they kick off their “20 Years of Placebo” World Tour in Denmark on October 13th.
Since releasing their critically acclaimed self-titled debut album in 1996, Placebo has sold more than 12 million records worldwide, has been certified gold and platinum in more than 30 countries, and had 6 top-ten albums in the UK. In addition, they’ve toured and headlined festivals in more than 70 countries and six continents, earning a reputation for mesmerizing live shows.
I recently had a chance to talk with Stefan about their upcoming album, EP, and world tour, as well as the chance meeting from which the band began and their friendship with the inimitable David Bowie.
Congratulations on Placebo’s 20th anniversary. It sounds like you have a lot planned – new music, a limited edition retrospective release, and a tour – to commemorate.
Yeah. This year is a busy one for us – I guess we have the decimal system to blame for that – Two. Zero. – means we must celebrate (laughs). We’ve got many releases in the air – the single “Jesus’ Son” that we’ve released. And we have the Life’s What You Make It EP as well as the 20-year retrospective album, A Place For Us To Dream. We are also working on re-releasing the first album in a super-deluxe edition. And we start the tour soon, too. It’s just been so many balls in the air and now it is time for promo so, yeah, it has been non-stop.
I saw on your Facebook page that the band has put together a Spotify Playlist – #PlaceboDream, Fan Dream Set List – of the 10 tracks fans have told you they want to hear on the upcoming tour. Have any tracks that have been popular on that list been a surprise?
Yes, a few. But we are very wary of when fans list their favorite songs because no matter what set list you play, there is always going to be someone who says, “Well, you didn’t play that B-Side on the Japanese-only 7-inch.” So it’s really about trying to play songs we still feel we have an emotional connection to and also, uniquely to this tour coming up, we are going to play old songs that we haven’t played live in a very long time. Just to honor the songs that gave us commercial success and also songs that a lot of fans like.
Do you think you will vary the set list at all depending on the city you are playing?
It might take a while for the set list to settle, but once the set list settles we tend to stick to it.
So the new EP title, Life’s What You Make It, as well as the new single, “Jesus’ Son” have been described by some as having a “triumph over adversity” theme. And I’m wondering if you agree with that? And also if that describes the place you and Brian have arrived at after 20 years in a band together?
Well, it does. I mean we aren’t members of any organized religion, but in terms of spirituality I believe what you do unto others will come back to you. And I also believe that the more positive attitude and the more hard work and perseverance that you put into your daily life and your relationships with people, the more you get back. And in relationships, especially, it’s very important – you have to learn to listen and to respect other people’s opinions and ways of being. So “life’s what you make it” is kind of a slogan to wake up to each day, you know? Sometimes I wake up with panic attacks and I just have to tell myself that this will pass and that there are a lot of good things to live for. There are a lot of things that I appreciate and I am thankful for everything that I have.
These are such important words. Especially for younger people who maybe don’t know yet – haven’t had the life experience to really understand – that the bad days do pass. I always say one of the few real benefits of getting older is that you learn – on a cellular level – that even in the darkest moments you can be sure that “this too shall pass.” One of my sons has just had an experience where these words were really important.
Yeah, this is something that we live by. It is something that is said in certain communities, “that this too shall pass.” So in times when you think everything is just dark, you just have to tell yourself that this too shall pass – however much it rings false or how hollow it seems at that moment – it really does.
But when you are younger everything can seem like an overwhelming catastrophe and just so permanent, right?
Yeah, when you are younger I think you live much more in the moment. And the moments are very intense because you are experiencing things for the very first time – like falling in love for example. Or moving house. Or your parents splitting up. These things are much more intense for a younger person because they are emotionally more inexperienced and emotionally more open.
Very true. So going back for a moment to the idea of spirituality – one of the things that strikes me about Placebo is the presence of serendipity – even in the way that the band began. Even though you and Brian attended the same school in Luxembourg it wasn’t until a chance meeting in 1994 in London – when Brian saw you walking with a guitar on your shoulder and called out your name – that you connected. Tell me what you were doing at the time. Were you pursuing music as a career? Were you already in a band?
Okay, so the precursor to that meeting was that we both went to an American school in Luxembourg. And the school was a bit like the movie, The Breakfast Club with Molly Ringwald. It was so segregated in that the jocks hung out by themselves, the drama kids hung out by themselves, and the pretty girls hung out by themselves. And I was kind of a jock and Brian was in drama and so we just did not mix because that is just not what you did in those social circumstances. But then I came to London to study because it is the musical center in Europe in a lot of ways, in terms of the bands that pass through here and in terms of the education you can receive here. And so I had a guitar on my back because I was going to school where I was learning to play guitar, and how to be a producer, and I was also learning music theory. And Brian had just finished his degree in drama and he was feeling that films and drama – in terms of the time period from the beginning of an idea to the actual final product – took far too long and that music is more immediate. So at that time, we both had music as our main focus and Brian invited me to come to one of his gigs. And from there we decided to work together. We had no responsibilities. No families. We had enough money to put food on our plates, so we just went for it and kind of burned bridges as we went along. And here we are today.
Indeed, here we are 20 years later. Placebo released your first album in 1996 and in 1997 you were playing David Bowies’ 50th birthday in Madison Square Garden. Tell me about how you ended up on stage, and as friends, with David Bowie.
It is a lot of luck [laughs]. The story is that we have Morrissey to thank for this actually. So what happened was that David Bowie was touring his Outside album around Europe and Morrissey was supporting him. And one day in Italy Morrissey, without telling his band, without telling his tour manager, took the tour bus and drove it all the way home to see his mother in England. So when everyone woke up in the morning the band asked, “Where’s Morrissey?” and David Bowie is going, “Where’s my support band?” And as luck had it, David Bowie and Placebo had the same booking agent and the booking agent said to Bowie, “Well, I have this demo of this new band that you might like.” This was before we had recorded our first album. So David Bowie heard our demo and on the strength of that alone he called up and said, “Hey, come and support me on my tour.” So Placebo went from playing shows in front of 300 people in a Pub in London to playing in front of 8,000 people in Italy. So it was like, “Holy Shit, we’ve jumped into the deep end and we’re crossing paths with David Bowie back stage” [laughs].
And then Bowie actually recorded with Placebo.
Yes. Brian was on vacation in the Caribbean and one morning, very early, a phone call comes through and it is David Bowie. And he goes, “Oh, I love your song, ‘Without You I’m Nothing.’ We have to perform it at the Brit Awards.” And Brian is like, “Well, I think it is a little too dark and melancholic. Why don’t you come and record it with us instead?” So we went to Chung King Studios in New York with Tony Visconti at the mixing desk and David Bowie recorded his harmony. It was a special moment in our lives. Still, we couldn’t resist but to press the red button between takes and go, “David, I think you have a better take in you.” And he said, “Alright boys. I’ll go again.” [laughs].
Do you think you will do any type of a tribute to David on your upcoming tour?
Well, we are going to be performing “Without You I’m Nothing” on the tour and it is going to be dedicated to him every night – if not verbally, definitely in our minds. Both Brian and I were in tears when we heard the news about David. It was like losing a family member and it was very dark for us.
It has been a tough year for all music fans, but I know the loss of Bowie was especially devastating for you.
With what’s happening this year, Prince for fuck’s sake, it’s just been really awful. We have to move forward. This too shall pass – this dark year.
The tour kicks off on the 13th and I know new dates are still being added, but I have to ask – do you think you will come to the US?
We’d love to. We really enjoy touring the States. It’s a pain in the ass to get into the States because they are so aggressive when they ask you (he imitates an agent): “So um, what do you do? Why are you going to the States? What are you bringing? What’s your purpose?” And that’s just at the check-in desk at Heathrow [laughs]. So it’s like, “Oh my god, it’s an interrogation!” But once you’re in the States – we love it. So yes, we really want to come. We are just trying to figure out the logistics. You know it is expensive to tour in the States, so we are trying to figure it out a way of coming back not being bled dry [laughs].
What is the best way for fans to keep up with news and find out additional tour dates, etc.?
The best place is our website: Placeboworld.co.uk. Our Facebook page is also a good place to keep up with what’s going on. We had to hire someone specifically to take care of everything Internet. Right around the year 2000, it became clear that that is the place the place to communicate with fans and to reach people, so we have someone full-time working on that – keeping it up to date and current.