Primed for their biggest Perth show ever next Monday, September 4 at Perth Arena, UK alt-rockers and Australian favourites Placebo kick off the local leg of their 20th Anniversary world tour right here in WA. KAREN LOWE spoke to bass and guitar player Stefan Olsdal about the journey to now, working with David Bowie and his electronic side project.
For so many of us growing up in the 90s, Placebo was one of the defining bands of our era. Did you ever imagine that 20 years later, you would be going just as strong?
No, I thought I’d be dead by now. No, no I can’t. We started the band, ahhh, it’s very hard… we set goals obviously but we reached those goals quite early on and then as the band grew and we kept sticking together, we realised that the challenges keep coming and it becomes harder to put out an album that you think is better than the one before but to be honest with you, I thought I’d be dead right now so every day I’m like “what do I do?’
You started the 20 year tour in December last year. How have the shows been going and have you enjoyed revisiting the older songs?
They’ve been going really well. I think because it’s a celebration of the last 20 years of Placebo, we’ve created an atmosphere where the audience feels included; perhaps more than previous tours. We’ve chosen to play some songs that are more commercial material so I think it’s been a broader, a more likeable ‘quote’ setlist which makes it a bit more inclusive and that’s cool. This tour, more than any tour, is all about the fans.
What are some of your favourite songs – the older ones?
What we have done with some of the older songs is re-work them because sometimes when you write a song in the studio and record it, it’s not necessarily the best it could be or you move on as a songwriter and musician and re-visit it later and it just doesn’t feel right in the original format.
So we have reworked some of the older songs and some of the newer songs. I guess a favourite of mine which is quite apt for now is a song called 20 Years which is a bit of an epic track. I feel that Placebo is at quite an epic stage right now in terms of life because of the band’s set up that we have and just because of the way that the band is performing and it’s a great track to show off what Placebo is now.
Next year will be the 20 year anniversary of Without You I’m Nothing. Do you feel that that album has withstood the test of time?
Oh my god! All of these 20 year anniversaries! They just keep coming! I thought that we were over with 20 year anniversaries. It feels like it’s been going on for years and years and years. Yeah you’re right. It’s 20 years next year and yeah I guess that it’s the album that cemented Placebo and the album that brought us to a wider audience and also what got us to Australia for the first time.
I’m very proud of that album. I think it’s the one where, after the first album, we had time to get a little more… melancholy (laughs), so if I had to choose between that album and the first album, this would definitely be my favourite of the two. It also has the song that we did with David Bowie as well at a poignant time in our career so for that reason, it holds a special place in my heart.
Speaking of David Bowie, it was the song Nancy Boy that caught his attention. How did that feel at the time? And how was it working with him?
Well it was pretty crazy, receiving the phone call and asked to be supporting Bowie. Even before our first album came out, we went on tour with him. We were kind of just plucked out of…obscurity really to go on tour with him so it was pretty mind-blowing. Our egos were probably inflated…OVER-inflated for awhile but we struck up a friendship that took us to the studio.
He always had an eye for the outsider, the bands that he’s collaborated with – Trent from Nine Inch Nails and, in their early days, Arcade Fire so it was a great honour and every night, we get to re-live our time together because we are performing that song live as well.
If you could collaborate with any musician in the world, who would you love to work with?
I don’t know, it’s such a difficult one. I’ve got a side project which is more electronic and that’s something I am working on right now. We’ve got an album coming out in October with an artist called Digital 21 and we’ve been working with a lot of female vocalists and on that project, I would love with Hope Sandoval from Massive Attack as she has such an amazing voice. I’m really into my female vocalists at the moment.
Throughout the 20 years of Placebo, you guys would have seen so many changes within the industry. What are the most positive changes that you have seen? And what are the most negative?
Well in the studio we’ve embraced the advancement of technology. That’s a massive….I mean, we are living through a technological revolution; our generation. It’s happening so fast and the development is so quick that we don’t really know what kind of affect it’s happening on us . I don’t know if this mobile phone I’ve got next to my head right now is giving me a brain tumour. I have no idea.
But yeah, in the studio, we’ve welcomed it from apps on the iPad to recording onto hard drives to all the electronics that it’s brought about so we’ve embraced that.
I guess the negative side is… I guess it’s the bugbear of a lot of bands where you are standing on stage and you are basically playing to a sea of mobile phones. People tend to want to record the moment rather than be IN the moment which is… I mean it’s a personal thing obviously but the way that I like to experience things is something you cannot download.
A show you cannot download but pretty much everything else you can from films to books to music but the actual live experience is something that is just there for the moment and I prefer to go and see a show and not bring my phone out and just live it and remember it for what it was. Sometimes, it gets pretty annoying actually when the front row is texting while you are trying to play so I guess that is the other side to it – that people are obsessed with it – with that little screen. It doesn’t look that great and the sound of it isn’t that great either.
And the worst thing is when they are jumping up and down and recording and you are just thinking “You are not even going to get good footage!”
Yeah exactly. That too. It never turns out great!
What are some of the best Placebo memories that you have?
Playing with some of our heroes – Frank Black, David Bowie – I mean… they were some pretty amazing moments. Playing in front of the Angkor Wat Temples in Cambodia – that was pretty mental. I am grateful for the fact that we are still here actually because we can count any number of rock n roll cliches but we’ve managed to remain somewhat…sane. It’s certainly not the same world.
I’m grateful that we can put out the 20th anniversary retrospective and come and tour Australia with it and I didn’t think that would ever be possible.
You would have seen a lot of crazy things happening on tour. What are some of the crazier things that you have seen? Or indeed, done?
It all just turns into XXX basically and….there’s your answer. Just put XXX.
You guys released an EP last year, Life’s What You Make It which includes a cover of Talk Talk (the title track). What inspired you to cover the song? And consequently, the video clip as well?
The 80s was a great era for pop music. It was quite experimental back then and artists were allowed to, you know, they were given a lot more artistic license in terms of how they wanted to develop their own style and there was the backing from the industry.
At the same time, it was the era that we grew up in as well. Kate Bush, same with Talk Talk – some of these bands were very innovative and wrote some great pop music so it felt like a very apt song for us to cover. It’s a great song and one we’ve always loved.
With the accompanying video, Brian had the idea of dating it and instead of walking through a swampy forest, like in the original, we had it filmed at the world’s largest electronic waste site in the world.
We were talking about the digital revolution and basically, the digital revolution has its….there’s a bad side to it and the rate that we are mining the world for all these precious minerals and metals to put into our electronic devices and a lot of it’s not re-used, it’s not recycled – Capitalism has its way and it’s cheaper a lot of the times to actually buy a new TV than have it repaired and the same thing with mobile phones and computers have an expiry date that the companies put so you go out and buy a new one.
But then, where does all of this e-waste end up? Somewhere as far away from your conscience, far away from the headlines so we wanted to bring some attention to that so that people actually think about what’s going on out there.
At the same time it’s like, you’ve got to make the best of what you’ve got. This is the only life that we have (I believe). Just try to look out for each other. Look out for yourself and be a little bit aware, a bit mindful; you know, we are all eventually the same, we’re all one and this world’s one so yeah. It’s all about spreading a little awareness.
It’s a beautiful, dark video that really does make you think…
Yeah, I gotta to make an effort myself to think so it’s a reminder to myself as much as anyone that I wish to see the video.
A lot of artists have fascinating muses and places from which to draw their inspiration. Is there anything in particular that you would cite as inspiring for your music?
We get this question a lot and basically it’s not something that we really think about until someone asks what it comes down to. It’s more often than not that it’s the actual process. It’s the creative process that brings out the ideas.
It doesn’t magically come from anywhere, especially after 20 years and 7 albums. It definitely doesn’t fall from out of nowhere (laughs). So yeah, you go in; you work on something that your instincts tell you that it’s something that you want to be working on and then you work. And you work and then you work. Sometimes you get what you want and sometimes you don’t but you’ve just got to keep working.
That’s the only way that you are going to get what that illusive sound in your head is.
Was there any valuable advice that you had been given at the beginning that you wish that you had listened to at the time? And what advice would you give to someone who was starting out now?
I remember Tony Visconti giving us advice and he just said…he said that he actually wish that he read more on tour instead of partying. Read more books. Drink less beer.
If I was to look back on myself, I had so many self-image issues. I was incredibly insecure with who I was and I was thrust into the limelight which caused me no end of problems in my head and I spent a lot of years worrying and being very insecure about who I was and basically being who I wanted to be.
I guess it would be – pluck up the courage to be who you want and sometimes saying what you think and feel, even if it’s unpopular; something that might land you into trouble – stick by it. You’ll benefit from it in the long run. Stick to your guns. Stick to your own personality. To who you are.
That’s good advice for everyone…
Yeah I think so. I keep telling myself that every day. I’m working on it.
And finally, after these tours are finished, what’s next for Placebo?
I’ve got an album coming out, an electronic album, with the artist Digital 21 which I mentioned to you. That’s coming out in October so I’ll be working on that. Then I’ll probably have a few weeks to do nothing.
I’ve got a studio at home and it’s always calling me so after all these years of tour, I’ll finally get back in there and start to work, work, work, work.