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Chalk it up to lucky number thirteen, in terms of years and longevity, that is.  Placebo has gone well past the decade mark with album sales of over ten million to release sixth record Battle For the Sun, one of their most passionate and upbeat to date.  2009 finds the band armed with a fresh start, aided in part by a break from their former label, Virgin Records, their new drummer, Steve Forrest, and most importantly, their spirited, optimistic about-face.

It’s time to reintroduce Placebo, a new band ready for new challenges.  We recently caught up by phone with singer/guitarist Brian Molko while the band was in Köln, doing a taping for German radio.  We especially had fun getting mutually fired up about the ridiculous business of American Idol, which Molko insists is giving pop music a bad name.

Here you are, back at it again with your sixth album.

We are indeed, handing our lives over to the rock and roll rat race lifestyle for another two years.

When I first heard the new title of the album, Battle For the Sun, it sounded so “blockbuster”, as if you were maybe going to include the theme song for a new sci-fi film or the next James Bond.

My impression, when we first came up with it, that it was more of a sci-fi thing.  I pictured us as magnet cartoon versions of ourselves, like mega-superheroes from outer space, protecting the light from the darkness and music from the forces of evil.  [Brian ends with a wicked laugh]

It makes sense.  You’re a new band in a way, with fresh energy and have to protect your own and go forth.

As a band, we’re going through a real renaissance, in a way.  How blessed are we!  What a luxurious position to be in, as far as fifteen years in the business, to be able to use that experience and plan for number fifteen in a much happier, brighter way.

As a band from day one, we existed very much on inter-band tension, that’s the bulk of it.  That was the fuel.  After fifteen years, myself and Stefan, we just couldn’t take it any more.  We went searching for a new surrogate family, which is basically what a band is.  I made so many decisions from the time I was a teenager based on the idea that I’d never have to get a real job.  That filled me with terror.  So you kind of create this sort of alternative reality around yourself, which is your band.  Your alternative reality is your surrogate family, you know?  You need one that’s based on love and respect for each other, rather than tension, personality problems and clashes.

Yeah, I can see how it can only work for a while.  Sometimes tension does bump up your game and forces you to create great art but it probably gets old and burns you out after a bit.  But your new songs themselves take on a sort of optimistic stance, in a way.

It’s all very relative, you know?  Once we had it at a distance, Stefan and I were able to listen to Meds [2006] and agreed it was a very well-executed record, but an emotionally difficult one to listen to, since there was so much pain on it.  It doesn’t offer the listener any real hope.  We wanted to turn around and do something that was very much the antithesis.  If Meds was sort of a grainy, black and white movie, then Battle For the Sun is a work filmed in glorious technicolor.  We wanted to do something that was more colorful and emotionally accessible.  I’m not talking about just making pop music.  We wanted to do something which was inspirational, really, something that did offer some hope to the listener.

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There are certainly a lot more nuances in the new songs, and a lot of them have that big “stadium” feeling that automatically makes you feel uplifted.

I hope so.  I think David Bottrill [producer] is very instrumental in this.  He’s very much celebrated for his work with Tool, of course. If all we wanted was a big, American sound, then there are hundreds of very good producers in the U.S. who could’ve done that, you know?  But there was something else about Bottrill which was very attractive to me.

Which of the albums he’s worked on really struck you most?

He made a record with friends of ours from Belgium called dEUS, which is a very different record than the ones he mixed for Tool.  It’s a very European record, very subtle, lots of ballads, you know, kind of Belgian. [laughs]  David had also done his sort of apprenticeship working with Peter Gabriel.  He worked on tracks like “Sledgehammer”.  I mean, that’s one of the greatest pop records of all times.  He understands pop music too, and our pop sensibilities, so it was that versatility which attracted us to him.  He’s very instrumental and responsible for a lot of the structural complexities in the new songs, and really pushed us.  There were songs that we thought were taken as far as they could be, but David deconstructed them and put them back together in a more sophisticated way.  That was a really great experience for us as well.

That’s exciting!  Would you then say that was one of the most rewarding studio experiences so far?

By far, the best!  I’d work with him again in a heartbeat.

That’s pretty amazing.  And you more did pre-production for this album as well, a new thing for Placebo?

Yeah, we did that for the first time, which means that by the time we got into the studio, we were completely prepared.  We wanted to do that because we were funding it with our own money at the time.  We were making the record without a record company so we wanted to be somewhat frugal, I suppose.  We were extremely prepared when we went in, so instead of recording nine or ten songs when we went in, we recorded eighteen.  So all that was left to be figured out was which were to be Battle For the Sun, which worked best with each other.  It’s like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

All the stories-as-songs are inter-connected, in a way.

They share a sort of unity but it’s not a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, but you’re supposed to kind of respond more personally and intuitively to it.  That’s what I think I’m becoming… I’m becoming a storyteller, really.  I write small fiction based on real events and genuine emotion.

I think that’s part of what always has drawn fans to your lyrics. You’ve always been a good storyteller and we like the stories you tell.  You come up with a new twist on something that might have happened to one of us but you have a fresh way of looking at it.

Yeah, that just comes from writing about what you know.  Because it’s so personal and real to me, it’s the kind of timeless thing people can appreciate.  The music has kind of stuck, you know?  It’s not trendy.

That’s so important.  Just look at The Cure.  They headlined Coachella recently and they just keep getting more and more fans.  Placebo is in a similar position, having headlined some of the biggest festivals around the world.  Integrity is the name of the game.

The more the music lasts, the more it remains important to people over the years.  It really touches their lives.  It’s a wonderful thing.

Now that you’re older and wiser, does the business of the music industry ever seem ridiculous to you, with all the new pop stars who come and go?

Well, it’s just as ridiculous as it’s ever been, really.  The forces of materialism are far, far more prominent today than they ever have been.  Music is used to fill the pockets of telephone companies and TV companies, I’m talking about your American Idol nonsense, which basically is giving pop music a bad name, in my opinion.

You can go back to the eighties, listen Kate Bushes’ work or Bowies’ “Ashes to Ashes”.  These were pop songs that were really fucking avant garde.  They were pushing the boundaries of what pop music was at the time. That doesn’t seem to be happening any more.  Now, there’s the proliferation of this karaoke idea, which is what American Idol is based on, you know?  People think that this one kind of vocal histrionics is what represents pop music.  That’s bullshit to me.  Absolutely not.  It’s karaoke, that’s what it is, mate.  That’s what it is.  You can go to pubs down in London– [unfortunately, the heated Molko is clearly enjoying our conversation, but it's nipped in the bud when another call chimes in and we're disconnected.  To be continued, next time].–Madeline Virbasius-Walsh/photos courtesy of Vagrant Records