Stefan Olsdal open up about the bands heady days, going sober + the new album
Cai Trefor

17:05 23rd September 2016

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Stefan Olsdal, guitarist-bassist, and co-founding member of Placebo, has spent the last couple of years working on remastering some of the Placebo back catalogue and putting together remarkable a mammouth 36-track retrospective collection called A Place For Us To Dream. Its release celebrate 20 years of Placebo who are certainly one of the greatest British bands of all time.

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They're also putting out a companion EP with some '80s covers and a couple of b-sides. The band are taking this best of set on tour starting  2016 - and according to Olsdal says they'll be on the road for about a year meaning Placebo is well and truly back.

We talk over the phone from our respective London homes about the process of making the new record, Brian Molko’s difficult relationship with some of his lyrics, record labels encouraging drug use, his wish to legalise prostitution and drugs, the band's formative years, and trying not to repeat history. Read about all this and more in the interview below.

"Double Espresso with four sugars…that's my only vice these days"

Well you must you have had your fair share of narcotics in the past?

"Yeah I counted the amount of gigs I did under the influence of whatever and it was a thousand gigs that I did not sober?

How many sober?

"Well it's been for Battle For The Sun and Loud Like Love sober.”

Otherwise you'd kill yourself?

“I'm too old to join the 27 club I also think it's a waste of life and it's terribly hard on people around you. I think humans are doomed to repeat history abut I'm trying to prove history wrong…. rock ‘n roll death, rock n roll suicide… I don't think that that's cool any more. It's been done so take care of yourself, and hold on to music.”

Let’s go back a bit… You started Placebo as a lofi project called Ashtray Heart with Brian in 1994. Is that right?

Yeah we were 19 and we started it in his council flat in Deptford as a little art house band with a Tascam four track surrounded by cheap broken guitars and keyboards. It was an artsy little band - Brian had studied drama.

Have you both ever had to have a normal job?

Brian refused to get a "normal job", his Dad's a banker. So is mine I mean we had to do summer jobs here and there when we needed it but nothing much.

Does this existence outside of the norm partly leads to why you do a thousand gigs under the influence? I mean, you don’t have to be up and ready like the rest of the world.

“Yeah we have ultimate freedom and dare I say it there have been instances in the past when the record company have told us ‘Yeah come on do this, have this line, have a beer before you go on stage.’ We really needed to be confrontational tonight. Sometimes the record companies are at fault. I'm still in disbelief record companies can endorse and make the artists do more harm to themselves.”

A lot of those experiences seem to have seeped into some of your biggest hits. The ‘Special K’ lyrics or the lyrics to Nancy Boy… they’re experiences that lots of people have gone through. Do you think having those drug experiences have made you more relatable?

“I think as a writer, if you're a novelist, or filmmaker or musician the most direct way to reach an audience is to base it on personal experience. In all of these songs there is a grain of truth and kind of autobiography on Brian's part. I think once we reached Black Market Music the lyrics on that whole album it's naming all the different pill boxes we had in the medicine cupboard…. [pauses] Relatable? Yeah sure. I have an issue with drugs being illegal because people are always going to be trying to find drugs what happens is that they buy them on the street and they're impure and they die from the rat poison that's in them. It's the same thing with prostitution. Prostitution is never going to go away. They force it on the streets which makes it less safe for the prostitutes and also drives it underground to a murkier, more dangerous place where human trafficking definitely plays a part. Alcohol is a big killer. I've had more friends who've had serious issues with alcohol and more friends that have died from alcohol abuse and that's perfectly normal. It's like 'Come on! Wake up'.

I agree. Are your albums reflecting different habits you had at a times? Are there any particularly dark moments that you had?

“I mean at one point we were basically living and breathing Placebo. We had no family and what we would do is we would lock ourselves in a windowless basement and write and record and it was in the centre of London. So what we would do is we would go in in the afternoon play a bit go to the pub, play a bit more then that night we'd go and check out other gigs if it was Scarfo who are The Kills former band, or if it was the Pumpkins or PJ Harvey and then come back inspired and write. So it was pretty much 24/7. And basically every day in a musician’s life is a Saturday night.”

Is the reason there’s so much adrenaline on your material because of that lifestyle?

“Not necessarily. I think we were drawn to the post punk of Sonic Youth and kind of Fugazi - the visceral punk. Not the Sex Pistols but the visceral energy that comes with playing at breakneck speeds and then kind of mixing that with catchy melodies on top. It's still there with us and yeah we just naturally were drawn to that.

Any time you felt like you were going through the motions in Placebo?

"It's a state of mind. You have to make a conscious effort every night when you're on stage to think about the fact that some people have never seen you before and also people have paid good money to see you so you owe it to the audience."

Album-wise, was there ever a point that wasn't as strong as another?

"Yeah. There are certain songs that looking back on it now I wouldn't have included on albums. What we've done over the past two years is we've remastered them for vinyl I've got the good monitors so I've had to listen through to all the records and certain songs you're going what the fuck were we thinking I don't like that song yeah."

Oh yeah, so this is the best of retrospective collection that's out on 7 October?

"Brian basically said, ‘Hey Stef, I can't stomach listening to all these songs can you do it?' And Brian's more of a visionary when it comes to artwork so he was taking care of the visual aspect so we complement each other in that way."

Is it that self-consciousness in reading something back that you've written?

I think so. He definitely has a troubled relationship with his past lyrics. Because like the line: "A friend with weed is better" on ‘Pure Morning’. He wouldn't write something like that now, but he did back then. For him it's being able to walk on stage and sing with conviction without smiling or without making up different lyrics you know.

So it’s enough for him just to be able to sing those songs never mind go back through them that closely.

What we tend to do is cover ourselves with quite a few versions of our songs that we've released. One of our first singles, 'Teenage Angst', has been done in piano format, it's been done in the rock format, and it has this stadium rock format. Then we went back to an electric bass led version. So in order for us to remain interested in our back catalogue we often change them and adopt them to how we feel. Sometimes a song when we record it, it's in an embryonic form it tells you ‘Listen, I'm supposed to be played this way.'”

How did you pick the songs?

Brian did the track listing.

What technically are the differences between the new release and the old releases?

I mean when you master something in the ‘90s it's very different to now. Now you've got to compete with so many other, especially American releases which are pumped volume-wise. Also a lot of people listen on laptop or on headphones.

The companion EP, Life’s What You Make It… Where did these songs come about?

They were us having fun in the studio. We chose some covers that we were fond of. Also we did two versions of '20 years'. One that was recorded in Russia and a live one that was recorded in France. Also, we're children of the 80s so a lot of the covers we chose are from the 80s.

What are your plans going forward?

"Yeah I mean the tour is going to take us into 2017 so by the time it finishes we're probably going to be Xmas 2017 and go back into the studio after that."

How do you plan to approach the next album?

"Both me and Brian want to approach the next album outside of the box. We feel like we've stamped our identity on the world so let's go outside of the box. Approaching the writing process in a different way."

Before would it be writing on acoustic guitars laying the vocals and everything around that?

"Yeah for example songs like ‘Too Many Friends’ and ‘Shoot The Sun’ like you said were written on an acoustic guitar in a classic manner. But when me and Brian get in the studio we surround ourselves with tools and synths and broken guitars and different types of guitar and the drum machine and we just follow something we both get turned on by. be it a sound or be it a loop so we're going to try doing it in that vein."

How do you feel about the upcoming tour?

"I’m completely excited excited about playing old songs I like it. I think I want to see people's reactions as well."

Buy Placebo tickets now


Friday 2 GLASGOW, SSE Hydro
Saturday 3 LEEDS, First Direct Arena
Monday 5 MANCHESTER, Arena
Tuesday 6 NOTTINGHAM, Motorpoint Arena
Thursday 8 BIRMINGHAM, Barclaycard Arena
Saturday 10 IRELAND, DUBLIN, 3Arena
Monday 12 NEWPORT, Centre
Wednesday 14 BRIGHTON, Centre
Thursday 15 LONDON, SSE Wembley Arena

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Photo: Wenn