Not many people have seen the cult classic glam rock tribute “Velvet Goldmine,” but those who have usually remember the same handful of scenes. They recall Ewan MacGregor writhing on stage in skintight leather pants and dousing his body with oil, they see Jonathan Rhys-Meyers pouting and cooing, his lips painted red and his hair sprayed into an elaborate blue coif.
Inevitably, they also think of one of the best and most glittery musical performances in the film – the fictional band The Flaming Creatures’ biting, almost gothic rendition of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy.”
Two of the members of The Flaming Creatures are also members of another equally explosive rock act, the idiosyncratic, real-life British band Placebo, whose sixth album, “Meds,” was released this past month.
Brian Molko and Steve Hewitt, along with fellow Placebo-ite Stefan Olsdal, who played the bassist of another band in the 1998 film, spent their time on the “Velvet Goldmine” set, “Really getting into the vibe of 70s glam rock,” Olsdal said.
“We sipped cocktails instead of getting shit done,” he laughed.
They appeared in the movie alongside two members of Radiohead, a band Olsdal admires because they “Work outside trends,” he said, which is something he said Placebo also seeks to do.
The band defies labels and stereotypes, creating music that can’t really be placed in any one genre, though it definitely has the intense, unbridled energy of traditional rock ‘n’ roll.
“Meds” marks the return of a sound that Olsdal calls “distorted guitar” for the band, who experimented with electronics and studio trickery during the recording of their last album, “Sleeping with Ghosts.”
“With ‘Meds,’ we’re putting less distance between the listener and the band,” Olsdal said. The album’s dark lyrics place a strong emphasis on story-telling, and lead singer Molko’s distinctively nasal voice is set to a backdrop of edgy, raw and deeply emotional instrumentation.
“It just felt right at this point in time,” Olsdal said.
Currently touring South and Central America – but slotted to appear at the Theatre of the Living Arts tonight – Placebo is still “Very much inhabited by ‘Meds,'” according to Olsdal. Still, he said, “Modern technology allows us to be creative and get ideas down even while on the road.”
He described the band as being like a “dysfunctional family,” but also said, “If we didn’t have respect for each other or like each other, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Founded in 1994 and originally called Ashtray Heart, Placebo has undergone many transformations and has had their share of successes and failures throughout the years. In addition to appearing in “Velvet Goldmine,” their hit song “Every You and Every Me” was featured in the sexy 1999 release “Cruel Intentions” and the band performed at the French leg of Live 8 in 2005.
Still, despite being well known in Europe, Placebo has yet to find mainstream fame in America. “We’ve been trying to crack it for a long, long time,” Olsdal said. Their hope is that “Meds,” with its potent mix of MTV and counterculture-friendly tracks, will be their ticket to appealing to a larger audience in the United States.
Part of the problem, it seems, is that people in America aren’t sure how to categorize Placebo.
“That’s the nature of the beast,” Olsdal said. “People want to put you in a box – we don’t think of being something, though. Our music is very personal and intimate; it’s not for everyone else. When we perform, that’s an extension of ourselves on stage. One of the reasons we’re still around is because we haven’t tried being anything, we just are what we are.”
Sometimes being themselves means wearing eyeliner and flaunting their sexualities (Olsdal is gay, Molko is bisexual), sometimes it means collaborating with artists such as David Bowie, Robert Smith of the Cure and Michael Stipe of REM, and sometimes it means doing covers of songs one wouldn’t normally expect to hear set to distorted guitar. It all depends.
One thing is certain: Placebo is a band that is truly original and unique, and this has been recognized time and time again by fans and contemporaries alike.
“[David] Bowie actually invited us to tour with him solely on the strength of our original demo,” Olsdal said. “We went from playing for 300 people in London to playing for thousands of people with him. It was an incredible experience.”
And one the band rightfully deserved.
Anna Hyclak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.