Interview: Stefan Olsdal of Placebo


“You can spend your whole life second-guessing what people want, but for us, we make music for ourselves.” Stefan Olsdal explains. “If you try to please someone, you’re only going to shoot yourself in the foot because you’re going to try to do something but you don’t know what it is.”

Stefan answers me from him seat across me on the 27th floor of the Grand Corpthorne. I’ve heard about the wild adventures and drunken nights and pills they didn’t even have names for but popped them anyway. But today his two-roomed suite is peculiarly neat for a rock star. The living hall is empty, save for a solitary MacBook resting on the table. He sits across me, legs crossed, sleeves pulled up. For a towering guy, his moves weren’t languid, as he stretched out for a grape from the complimentary fruit bowl, while the bedroom bolted with two out swinging doors that kept out the inquisitive eyes. I felt a tinge of disappointment shrouded beneath my excitement. I was a fan first before a writer, which resulted in a flummox of emotions, but managed to come out a bigger fan than I ever was.

What’s the main theme behind the new album?

Brian is the main lyric provider, so I can only speak of how I interpret the lyrics. It is kind of spelt out in the title, Loud Like Love. I think lyrically it deals with a lot of different aspects of love, which is a small word but with a lot of meaning and implications. A lot of people when they hear of the word love, they think of positive romance and hearts but while that’s part of the equation. It also looks at how love can cause destruction and how it causes obsessive behaviour, jealousy, it can be an addictive quality, it can also lead people to very, very dark places. I think that’s how love is sung about on this record. There’s ten different stories dealing with relationships and how twisted and f*cked up that can be.

Do you think you’re a pessimist in love?

No. I think that love changes depending on where you are in life and your state of mind. It depends on the person. Love is something that you can’t restrict and you just have to let yourself feel it and not censor it even if it’s good or bad. Sometimes you find yourself in very constrictive situations with people that are close to you or people that you wish are close to you. Unattainable love. And also if you’re in a relationship it changes, it’s not the same from where you started from to a few years down the line.



I’ve actually heard the album today, and there’s a track on it called ‘Exit Wounds’. What does the track mean to you?

The way I see it is if I can’t have you, and there’s nothing else I can replace you with then I’d rather be dead. It’s not something that I personally experience; it is a very extreme place to be in. You’ll have to ask Brian about it. I don’t think Brian would write about something he doesn’t have an emotional connection to. I think the lyrics are ambiguous enough for people to make up their own stories and live it through them. But there’s an element of him in all this stories and on this album.




I understand that Loud Like Love was actually brought from Brian’s solo project, and the change is drastic.

There are a few tracks like Scene of the Crime and Hold On to Me. Sonically the songs that he brought were different. I think he probably didn’t want do something that sounded like placebo, usually there’s big drums bass and sometimes bigger guitars.

It sounds different rom the previous Placebo albums. Do you think there will be a division between the old and new fans?

I don’t think I know that fans they all have different favourite albums. The thing that you learn is that you cannot please everyone. They’ll be like what this one sounds too happy; I want it to be sad. So you can spend your whole life second-guessing what people want, but for us, this must sound like a band thing, but we make music for ourselves. If you try to please someone, then you’re only going to shoot yourself in the foot because you’re going to try to do something but you don’t know what it is. 

The only real way to have a connection with music is for it to excite us and make us feel like we’re doing something that’s exciting and something that pushes us forward. You could end up following formula, which works for some, but you won’t enjoy writing. There has been songs in the past that are 6 minutes long and end up being number one in the world . I think theres always some of safer risks that’s worth taking. It’s not always about following rules, sometimes what people expect is something different. I think people are generally very attuned to something they’ve heard before, so what’s the point in trying to replicate something?

Do you think this is the best album that you’ve ever written?

The only way I can react to this record is by a general feeling since I can’t analyse it. I felt that this is the record that I’ve always heard in my head for what a Placebo record should sound like. This is the most successful transfer of idea to record so for me I truly feel it’s our best record.

How was it like working with Brett Easton Ellis for the ‘Too Many Friends’ music video?

We didn’t actually meet him because of the way these things work, as everyone is really busy and I think he’s really busy with his new film called The Canyon. The director lives in LA, and Bret Easton lives in New York and we live in London. So we flew to LA to film the video with Saman Keshavarz the director, and while we were there, he brought up the idea of having Bret Easton narrate the video and we loved the idea. But by that time we were on the way back from LA to London, so we never got to meet him but we were very happy to have him on it.

Why the decision to work with Saman Kesharvarz?

We have seen a few videos he had done previously and that’s why we wanted to work with him. When you work with someone, it’s basically striking a balance between letting him do whatever the hell he wants because you love his work but also to try and steer it into some direction of what we feel comfortable with. It is a collaboration, he would provide ideas and we would say we’re not every comfortable looking like 50 year olds at a barbeque so could you change that a bit? Its kind of like striking a balance that we feel happy with and at the same time not reining him in. It is insane and I’m still looking at it and going fucking hell. Are you mad? Are you absolutely insane?

What was the relevance of the video and the whole going against social media bit?

I don’t think it’s a literate representation of the song, I think they work on parallel universe. They have certain things in common which are technology and social media and the kind of effect it has on our lives and there’s a certain kind of miscommunication. Like the song is alluding you to, there’s a whole thing about people being isolated but having more friends but these friends are virtual. So are you closer to the 500 virtual friends you have than the people you sit with having one to one conversation. I think it is dealing with what social media is doing to us.

What’s the idea of the whole video?

To me, I know people have different ideas about this. I think it’s very much about what actually happened. Because between you and me, we can see that something happened. But your reality is going to be different from mine and you’re going to think that what you saw is what happened. For me, I think the “assailant” was so high that he was after the sugar rush that he reached out for gummy bear that was placed there by accident. He was obviously too high to place the gummy bear there himself.



Do you think social media constricts the relationship you have with your fans?

We’re not on any social networks but Placebo is. I joined Facebook after the three imposters up there pretending to be me. I was on there for two weeks and I had to stop because all these people wanted to become my friends and I didn’t want to become theirs. And they’re not fans or anything but they are people that I used to go to school with and people that I used to know when I was younger. It is just like this whole emotional blackmail. “I want to be your friend are you going to accept me?” and I didn’t want to get into this whole game where you are ranking your friends and I thought I had enough with it except my phone and email. This is something I’ve still been debating if I want to go on there. I’ve been thinking if I should blog or should I tweet and I’m still undecided about what I want to do. Even though yes it’s a more direct route to the fans and I know a lot of bands do it. Placebo as a band has it and I feel that anything that we want to tell the fans, we will do it officially and if there’s anything more personal then there’s the live experience, when we perform.

Placebo is releasing the new album in three different formats, MP3, CD and vinyl. Do you think you are going backwards or forward in terms of the whole vinyl format?

I think it is probably coming back as a trend for vinyl junkies. But on a whole, if they are going to take over the whole digital format, I would have to say no. Purely because you can have everything on an iPhone and people are more obsessed with the actual device than the format of the music. It is more about having a cool smart phone.  Overall, I think vinyl is great and it is a beautiful format and that’s why I grew up with it.

Does that put pressure on the rest of the band that you play the piano, guitar, bass and drums?

Don’t tell Steve this but I did play a little drum on this record, it was some hi-hat or something. Brian and I are a good complement when it comes to the music, what happens is that when we go record, we record all the drums and then Steve leaves the studio and Brian and I do the rest and fit on top of everything. It depends on the part and Brian has got his own style, sometimes if he came up with the part he would definitely play it.  I’m more of a technical person and I approach writing music quite theoretically. I know all the notes that we’re playing and all the shit between the notes and why this sounds good and why that sounds bad and what key and minor it is supposed to be in and Brian doesn’t have any idea of that, he is much more of an abstract so we are a good complement in that way. It’s never a case of one-up mishap or something, it is just that we have different styles and different approaches.

Do you think Brian’s lyrics mean little sometimes, do you think it’s all about rhyming or does it have an underlying meaning behind each line?

I can feel his pain; I know it’s harder for him on every record to find something to write about because he really feels he has to feel it, unless there’s something

There has to be something behind otherwise he can’t go around the world singing something he doesn’t have a connection to.

What’s the idea behind the track ‘Robbing the Bank’?

I understand why it’s misunderstood; a lot of people take it on face value thinking it’s about the economic crisis but the story of that which Brian had to explain to me before I could understand really. It is a list of quasi-illegal acts (like sort of criminal things like robbing the bank for example, if you do that you can get arrested) the song is basically a list of bad things and bad actions that the person is doing but the person who’s singing basically says I don’t care what you do or the kind of person you are, just as long as the end of the day you just get home and f*ck me.

What do you bring to the studio gear wise when recording the bass bits?

I was thinking of about this the other day, since album no. 4 I’ve mainly used the Gibson thunderbird, (the brown one from 91’) and that’s my main bass from sleeping with ghosts. For the slower tracks I use the Fender Jazz bass and on this record I found a bass and it’s hard to find a bass that I like. It’s a monster Burns Bison bass, it weighs a fucking ton. I don’t bring it on tour and I only use it for one song, “Robbing The Bank”. So it’s kind of like a thunderbird, growly but not as bottom heavy but still have an earthy gritty sound. I bring an Electro Harmonix LPB and the micro synth for bass. I use that one on a few tracks off Battle Of The Sun like ‘For What it’s Worth’.



Will you guys be writing any songs in other languages?

We have a whole stack of half-finished B-sides that are all in different languages, we are too European for Mandarin. The funny thing was when Steve joined the band, he was twenty I think, and we are like Steve you have to learn a language that none of us speaks, so you can speak it when we are touring and we’re like learn mandarin it could be really useful for the kids and everything but he hasn’t. English is our natural language, we’ve done one in French and that will do but who knows.

What’s your favourite song to play live?

The way it happens is after every album we tour the album for eighteen months to two years, what happens after that is you get sick of playing songs so whenever you write something new, you’re very excited to play it so now, for the new album I’m very excited to play the new stuff. Too many friends and loud like love!

Why haven’t you been playing the new tracks to the public?

We are kind of a bit old fashioned in that sense we don’t want shit versions to be out there because more people film it on their smart phones and put it on YouTube and it sounds like shit. But saying that, we have done some reworking of old songs. We’ve done one off teenage angst, its like the third version, we’ve done a rock version a piano version and now we’re doing the bass version. It’s funny because the way that was first written was on the bass so it’s a little of back to the original. 

How’s it like playing in Singapore a politically strict country when same-sex marriage isn’t recognised and same sex intercourse is criminalised?

You’ve an openly gay politician right now. It just came out a few weeks ago and I’ve been reading about it. The first time we played here impersonating a female, it was illegal but it was not in force even though it might be on paper although Singapore’s a very strict country on capital punishment. But there are countries around the world that are way worse, countries like Cameroon and Uganda where is kind of like hellholes for people like me. I don’t think any bands play Cameroon maybe we should be the first one. In Russia it’s similar, basically it’s illegal to go out and say that you’re gay. Back in London, it’s such an accepted part of our lives so sometimes you just think that everywhere’s like home but it really isn’t.