Music interview: Stefan Olsdal on 20 years of Placebo

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Placebo’s 20th anniversary tour is wending its way across continental Europe en route to Britain when the YEP catches up with the rock band’s bass player and guitarist Stefan Olsdal in Germany.

The shows have been going well so far, he says. “I think we’ve approached this in a bit more of a celebratory style than previous tours because it is after all the 20th anniversary, and instead of going out and grudgingly playing old songs that we don’t like we approached it from [the perspective of] ‘Let’s celebrate our past and let’s accept what has made us who we are today and has got us here today’.

“It’s coming to terms with the past, celebrating it and being grateful for what we’ve got, basically.”

As for which memories stand out for the 42-year-old Swede from the past two decades, he says: “There’s been some gigs, some collaborations and some moments but I think overall it’s just been sticking to our guns and not taking any fast tracks and also living through periods when we were really unfashionable and not letting it affect us and just do what feels right and fulfil our own vision.

“If you do that for long enough you kind of create your own world. Also if you stick around for long enough then people can’t ignore you either.

“Throughout these 20 years it’s been scattered with [moments] – the first time we played Brixton Academy in London, doing collaborations with some of our heroes from Frank Black to Robert Smith and [David] Bowie, playing in front of the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia – we were the first rock band to do so...I can sit and talk about that for quite a while but these days before we go on stage as we play a little homage to Leonard Cohen on our video screens me and Brian [Molko, Placebo’s singer and co-founder] look at each other and say, ‘We still have each other and we’re still doing it, we’re blessed with what we have.’

Stefan Olsdal and Brian Molko formed Placebo 20 years ago.

Stefan Olsdal and Brian Molko formed Placebo 20 years ago.

“Especially in this year as well which has been so fraught with tragedies, it feels even more poignant that we should do a retrospective now.”

Molko once summed up Placebo as ‘a band for outsiders, by outsiders’. Olsdal agrees that having such a strong identity may have helped them outlast many of their contemporaries from the 1990s. “When we play our shows it feels that there’s a sense of community and it seems that it is a place where people can come and feel like they can be themselves. My way of approaching what we do is to be as true and honest to myself as possible and I think if you are that, that gets transferred. I think people can relate to someone who’s being honest with you.

“Certainly there are a lot of aspects to what we do which are more than the mainstream or the rock scene when we started in the 90s – what we were talking about, the way we sounded and our orientations, there were a lot of things about us which made us stick out a bit like a sore thumb but that’s OK, and I think we kind of wore that with pride and we still do and that’s possibly one of the reasons why we’re still attracting all these people – that coupled with a knack for writing a catchy tune.”

Reflecting on the many times that Placebo have performed in Leeds over the past 20 years, Olsdal says: “It goes way back. I think in ’95 we supported the Foo Fighters; the second time we were there I think we supported Garbage when we had our first album out. It’s always been a great vibe for us. It’s a university town so it was one of the strongholds for us in the beginning and we seemed to spend a lot of time up there.

We were so spoilt, looking back on it. David Bowie took us under his wing and he was the truest gentleman and always had time for you.

Stefan Olsdal

“I think the first time we had there was at The Cockpit. We have very many fond memories, it’s given us a lot of breaks and we’re keen to come back. I think one of the last shows we did there was a charity gig for one of the foundations in Thailand that we support, for street kids, orphans. It’s an important place for us. Now I think half of [the seats] are going be filled by our drummer [Matt Lunn]’s family – he’s from up there, a Yorkshire lad. Now we have a bit of Yorkshire in amongst us.”

One of the band’s key supporters over the years was the late David Bowie. He duetted with Brian Molko on the Placebo song Without You I’m Nothing and took the band on tour with him.

Olsdal remembers the singer, who died in January aged 69, fondly. “We were so spoilt, looking back on it. He took us under his wing and he was the truest gentleman and always had time for you.

“He always looked at you like an equal, he was never the big star and with his attitude it just instilled us with confidence at a very early stage. To have someone championing you even before our first album came out was something pretty extraordinary, looking back on it, and we owe him a great deal.

“He gave us our first arena show – we supported him on his Outside tour, that was just around the time when our first album came out – ,and we supported him on the successive album to Outside as well. It culminated with our duet, he came and sang on one of our songs. He was forever the enthusiast and the person with the best and the biggest stories in the room, no doubt.

“We’ve brought that track, Without You I’m Nothing, back into the set for this tour and it’s a very poignant moment. I don’t know if I’m getting old but I get soppy every time we play it. For me personally he was like a family member that passed. He really was someone who touched us on more levels than just musically.”

Of the seven studio albums that Placebo have released, Olsdal says their self-titled first record seems to have particular resonance at the moment. “It feels like onh the first album we really did stamp and identity and we’re still true to it now because we can still play those songs and not throw up,” he quips.

After their 20th anniversary celebrations end, Olsdal reveals he and Molko are keen to start work on their next album. “There’s always a side to me that when I’m on the road I want to be back in the studio. I’m in it for the long haul and there’s no road blocks, really.

“Life does throw curveballs but we’ve had a few curveballs in our past and we seem to have survived them if the current state of our endurance is anything to go by – and by the fact that we didn’t know how to do anything else. Life’s just kind of whizzed past. We started when I was 19. Music was my passion then I met Brian and we shared the same strange sound in my head so we’ve been chasing that sound in our heads. It’s always elusive but it’s always there in the distance in some other dimension and we’re always trying to find our way there. Sometimes we get close. The journey there brings some interesting results and I think that’s the albums that we’ve put out.

“We still have a long way to go to break through to the other side. So yes, the public is going to have to put up with us for a little while longer.”

Placebo play at First Direct Arena, Leeds on December 3. www.placeboworld.co.uk