Melody Maker February 1997
Backstage at Bowie's 50th. Hangin' with PLACEBO's BRIAN MOLKO and FOO FIGHTERS' DAVE GROHL. Why not get the two of them to interview each other, we thought. So we did
The setting: PLacebo's dressing room, backstage at Madison Square Garden. David Bowie is halfway through his 50th Birthday Concert. Two of his special guests are with The Maker: Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl who, minutes earlier, had helped Bowie perform a rousing tribal version of "Hallo Spaceboy", drumming on stage for almost the first time since Nirvana; and Placebo's Brian Molko, whose band had earlier performed a blistering opening set. The two frontmen had met before, during last summer's round of festivals, when Dave nearly hitched a ride up to Reading in Placebo's van. Dave looks like a Muskateer or a Fifties beat poet with his newly-grown beard; Brian looks...well, like Brian. Androgynous.
Knowing that the two musicians are massive Bowie fans, and knowing that Brian was a massive Nirvana fan and also fascinated by the whole idea of fame, I figured it'd be a good idea to have them interview each other.
Brian: "Tell me about the first time you met Bowie."
Dave: "It was the day before yesterday. And he looks totally fucking amazing! He's 50 years old, he could practically be my parent. He's such a gentleman. It's strange, cos when you meet people like David Bowie and Iggy Pop...you think Iggy Pop's going to be this monster, he's going to vomit on you, he's going to have needles hanging out of his arms - but he wasn't like that at all. He's a sweet guy. Did you have a word with Prince?. I stepped over him." (Laughs)
Brian: "I've been looking for him everywhere. Our drummer is the hugest TAFKAP fan. It's interesting that you use the word 'gentleman' to describe Bowie. We did two tours in Europe with him - Morrissey gave us our big break, he disappeared and we stood in for him - and when people ask me what he's like, I reply that he's a true, true gentleman with his feet on the ground. He speaks to you. You feel like he's genuinely interested in what you have to say. "I'll tell you about the first time I met Bowie. We'd just done a little tour of England - the biggest capacity venue we played was 300 people - and we got on a plane, we flew to Milan and we show up in this place, 8000-seater! I was quite freaked, so a lot of jack and coke went into my system before I went on. The gig wasn't that fantastic. I broke a string and threw my guitar across the stage.
"So we come offstage, high on adrenalin, walk towards the dressing room...there's Bowie, standing by the door, with his arms crossed, shades on, and I'm like, 'All right, Dave. Want a cigarette?' And he's like, 'No, sorry. Just put one out.' And that's the first thing I ever said to him: 'Want a fag?' How did I feel? He really went out of his way to make us feel comfortable. He's a lovely man, and he deserves to be hugged. Constantly."
Dave: "I was surprised at how willing he was to jump into any conversation. When you meet people like David Bowie- and it doesn't happen very often - your expectations are so askew. You don't know whether they're going to be the Big Star, or the Big Star That Tries To Be Nice To The Little Star. With him it's so effortless. He's from another planet, but he's such a human being.
"When we were rehearsing the triple drummer thing for 'Hallo Spaceboy', I asked him whether he'd ever been to Brazil and seen the Samba drum troupes at their annual carnival. Each neighbourhood has their own drum troupe - 75 people, 15 with kickdrums, 10 with massive deep snares, 12 with toms and another 50 with tambourines - and it's fucking un-be-lieve-able. And he starts explaining 'Hallo Spaceboy' to me, how it's all about the male tendency to war, and I lost it. Because I'm sitting there looking at his right eye and his left eye and...I just couldn't fucking believe it."
Brian: "What's your favourite Bowie period?"
Dave: "Being a drummer and loving solid pop-rock drumming, I love the solidity and power of some of those 'Modern Love' songs. It's hard to choose, because David Bowie is such a chameleon. You have the Ziggy era, you have the soul era, you have the pop/'Modern Love' era...He's covered so many bases."
Brian: "Do you want to look that good at 50?"
Dave: "I'll be dead at 50! I would always swear to myself that I would not step foot on a stage after I'm 33 years old. I'm 28, now. Why 33? I don't know. What the fuck?! Look at Mick Jagger. You see this man in tight yellow pants, bouncing around as if he's in a step aerobics class, Keith Richards has just got back from his 85th transfusion, and you think 'This is not going to happen to me.' But then you meet someone like Bowie and it's so inspirational."
Brian: "Do you like techno? Do you like drum'n'bass?"
Dave: "See, me being a drummer, it's hard for me to accept anything but a drummer producing the rhythm track to a song. One of the problems I have with dance music nowadays is that, often, it's not song orientated at all. I love The Prodigy. I fucking love them, because whether they have vocals on their albums or not, the dynamics of their songs make them songs."
Brian: "The Prodigy are more punk in their attitude towards music than most punk-influenced bands coming out now. To me, Sonic Youth were punk because they redefined the way of playing, they invented their own rules. Punk's an attitude thing, not three chords and sounding like the Pistols. And that's what I love about The Prodigy - they're large and dangerous."
Dave: "I'd never seen The Prodigy when I picked up their album five years ago, and I was amazed at the rhythms they were using. There was something there other than step aerobics class rhythm. Seeing them live this summer blew me away, because a few days before, I'd seen Orbital, which was all right, but visually there wasn't much there. Seeing The Prodigy was an experience. To see 60,000 people - the kids with the Alanis Morissette t-shirts, the kids with the Hawkwind t-shirts, the kids with the Therapy? t-shirts - rockin' to The Prodigy was quite an experience. The kids with the Foo Fighters t-shirts, even the Foo Fighters...are rockin' to The Prodigy. I want to see The Prodigy take over the world. I'd love to see The Prodigy come to America and destroy all guitar-based, fucking alternative bullshit, rock. And that would include our band. You see, one of the accomplishments I've always been proud of in Nirvana is that people say we destroyed hair rock, Los Angeles strip metal bullshit."
MM: People say punk destroyed rock'n'roll. It didn't. It revived rock'n'roll. People say Nirvana destroyed rock. They didn't. They revived rock music. They made rock music hip again.
Dave: "The reality is one type of music can shed light on the falseness - what's lacking - in another type. It's not that one can make somebody appreciate the other. When someone heard the Sex Pistols' 'Bodies' for the first time, they didn't think, 'Wow, man, I'll go and put on "Sweet Home Alabama" because now I know what it's all about.' No. People made the separation, they made the division. They said 'This is real, this is Vegas.' The Prodigy have the energy that is currently lacking. I really do see them taking over the world."
Brian: "I hope they do, because music has to change, it has to mutate. I've seen them twice and they carry so much energy, it felt like I was on uppers."
Dave: "It's like, your taste in music becomes stagnant and complacent, so something else comes along and you fall in love with it and realise the love you previously had was lacking in so many ways. Often, people fall in love with something they're totally afraid of, they feel threatened by - the tank, the older woman, someone's intellect, someone's reputation - and that's what happened when I saw The Prodigy for the first time."
Brian: "Let's change tack. I'm known for wearing makeup, for my androgyny. On our bus, we have a video of Nirvana. Something I loved was seeing you and Kurt onstage wearing bras. So what I'd like to know is: when was the first time you wore women's clothing and have you ever been out in drag?"
Dave: "I've been out in drag. When I was young, I would put on a show for the family - I was always the comedian..."
Brian: "With your mum's clothes? Did you have any sisters?"
Dave: "No, I think it may have been some clothing we had in the attic, something as outlandish and ridiculous as possible..."
The PR interrupts to ask whether anyone wants to watch Lou Reed performing with David Bowie.
Dave (muttering): "...it's just that I have a weird phallic complex..."
Brian: "That's interesting. You've brought something up there. A lot of people say that the guitar is a penis extension. So what are drums?"
Dave: "Drums, to me, always seemed like the greatest toy. You didn't have the nicest bike in the neighbourhood, you didn't have a tennis racket, you had a drum set. Drums are strange. Drums are for idiots. I am the idiot, and I'm comfortable with that. Drums are great, because nobody expects anything from you."
MM: How did it feel drumming onstage again tonight?
Dave: "It hurt. Really bad. I was laughing at William (Foo Fighters' regular drummer) so bad, cos he was looking like he'd just seen a ghost."
Brian: "How long has it been since you last played drums onstage?"
Dave: "A really long time, I guess. I played once at a Bootleggers show in New Zealand. That was the only time. And we did the tour with Mike Watt."
Brian: "Tell me more about dressing up in women's clothing."
Dave: "I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where my parents were divorced, with only my mother and sister, so there was no male balance. There was no father who wanted you to be like dad, so you were left to be an individual because of course your mother didn't want you to grow up to be like your mother, and your sister didn't want you to grow up to be like your sister. That was nice."
Brian: "I wouldn't be the person I am now if I'd grown up with a heavy fatherly influence. My father was hardly ever there."
Dave: "Well, there's this thing where you're intimidated by your father, whether you like it or not, because he's the man and he always will be. I'm 28 years old and I haven't lived with my father since I was seven, but I'm still intimidated by the guy. I've learnt to accept the relationship we have, and he's a great guy, but growing up without a strong male influence had a strong influence on me. When I was 12, I was in theatre groups and they were predominantly gay. People often shy away from - or are scared of - people who are gay. And, growing up in rural Virginia where everyone's either a farmer or work in the Pentagon, to be so accepting of gay people was a real bonus."
Dave: "Let me ask you a question. How many times have you been to America?"
Brian: "Well, my grandmother used to live in New York, and my aunt.."
Dave: "Wait. Where are you from?"
Brian: "I'm American, but my parents weren't original Americans, naturalised. I was born in Belgium. My brother was born in New York, but by the time I was born, my parents had relocated to Europe and I grew up there. But I haven't actually lived here. This'd be the fourth time my band's been to America."
Dave: "So how do you find American culture?"
Brian: "I hate the tv. The tv's just abysmal. Stefan and I both grew up in the American school in Luxembourg, whicvh is a tiny, tiny little country like Switzerland, but even smaller. Firms like Dupont and Mobil Oil send their people over there as a reward. So the kids who I went to school with were like the ugly American abroad, totally arrogant. That gave me a tainted view of what Americans are like, cos I was mixing with the upper/middle class, spoilt rich kids...
"So I moved to London when I was 17 to study acting. Having spent almost six and a half years in London, I'm starting to get really pissed off with the English reserve, all these unspoken rules about how you can't be in someone's face. Since I've come back, I've found the Americans to be much more approachable, much more open. People actually listen to you and give you much more of a chance. We're seriously discussing about moving to New York."
Brian: "Yeah. We're 'Placebo from London' now, but in a year's time, we could be 'Placebo from New York City'."
Dave: "Explain the correlation between theatre and rock'n'roll."
Brian: "Theatre taught me about emotional memory and how to become your character and build a history for it."
Dave: "You studied that?"
Brian: "I have a university degree in drama."
Dave: "You do? Then you're the perfect frontman for the band, aren't you?" (Laughs)
Brian: "I guess so. What that training taught me was how to open emotional doors and lose myself in something."
Dave: "So you lose yourself when you step onstage."
Brian: "Yeah. I put my makeup on and that's instrumental in becoming Brian Placebo instead of becoming Brian Molko. The emotions that are in the songs become easier to express. And it's a completely emotional thing for me, it really is."
Dave: "It's really refreshing to hear you say that, because there are so many people nowadays who are into walking onstage and feeling like there's no difference between them and the audience. I'm one of them. I'm from the school of Neil Young, punk rock. It's refreshing to meet someone who makes the separation, who considers something theatrical. It was something I was thinking about only recently...
"We'd done all these shows in France with this band who'd come on stage and be something different to how they were five minutes before when we were drinking a beer with them. And I thought that this was the most ridiculously contrived, piece-of-shit show I'd seen in my entire life. How could that person just decide to be a rock star? SO, for this one show, I decided I too would be a fucking rock star, cos it was the only way the audience would be happy. I was running from one side of the stage to the other, I was sitting on the side of the stage, I was asking 'Ca va?' - I didn't fucking speak French - and saying 'Je t'aime', I love you. I was being this star for 45 minutes, hamming it up, because I was so unsatisfied, and because I thought there's no way the people in the audience will accept me for who I am. And we had an amazing show. It was as if I were a different person onstage. I wasn't myself.
"I was talking to David Bowie about this, and I was saying, 'For the longest time, there'd be the four of us on the lip of the stage and then just black - from there on in, it didn't matter.' I didn't care to make some intimate connection with the audience. This is who we are, and if there's a connection made, then great. It's totally pure, and that's amazing. But I'm not going to force it on people. And then to hear David Bowie say...I can't remember what he said, because I was too busy looking at his eyes!"
Dave: "But there's something to be said for The Show. I have so much respect for someone who can say, 'I'm going to walk onstage and be something HUGE.' I can't do it and maybe I'm envious, because I still look at myself as the 11-year-old sitting in front of a stereo listening to fucking whatever, the first B-52s record. I don't want to to think that I'm not enamoured or that I don't get into it. I'm in a band with Pat Smear, for fuck's sake! That guy walks onstage with a feather boa, white leather trousers, pomps and..."
Brian: "His outfit tonight was classic. Look, I don't want you to think that what I do onstage is like a Ziggy kind of character. When I step onstage, it gives me the freedom to be the person I've always wanted to be. That's why i loved acting so much, because you could go onstage and do things that, in real life, you wouldn't be able to get away with. It was an escape. "What it does is give me the power to be as large as I always wanted to be - and I'm quite a small guy - for half an hour, an hour. It's real. It opens things up. It's not a character, it's a part of me which I can't bring out all the time. It comes out when I'm drunk, when I've been tooting, when my mind's been altered in one way or another. I'm usually quite quiet, and it's good to go to extremes..."
Dave: "With me, there's always this guilt, stepping onstage."
Brian: "Really? You see, I won't go onstage wearing the same shirt. I'll wear the same trousers all day, but I won't wear the same shirt. Sometimes I'll be really quiet, but all I need to do is put my makeup on, and I'll be there. I'll do your makeup one day."
Dave: "You should."
Brian gets out his eyeliner.
MM: That's an interesting point you're making about honesty. During punk, the whole concept of being an actor was frowned upon. It wasn't honest. But everyone has so many facets to their character. Who's to say which is the most honest?
Dave: "When you (Brian) walk onstage, it's a celebration. A lot of the times whe I walk onstage, I'm so incredibly frightened. There's guilt, there's fear. There are people out there who are standing, looking at me as if they're reaching out and will never be able to touch me. That's what scares me. Because I still believe I could make a connection if only they didn't think that about me. I want to bring down that barrier."
Brian: "I understand that completely, but unfortunately for you, you were the drummer with the biggest rock band in the world. I try to speak to people after shows and depending on how much I've drunk, how I react is very strange. I'll be like, 'Don't be that way. I'm a fucking human being.'"
Dave: "That's the thing. I'd meet Rock Star X and I'd be so scared, be so vulnerable, and think 'Oh my God, I'm talking to this person' and it was almost like they could sense that and would take advantage of it. And then I'd think 'You know what? That guy's a fucking asshole.'"
Brian: "You do that because you get bored with it, so you start to play along with it. I do it, I'm guilty of it, because I enjoy playing with people's heads."
Dave: "I have this problem, because I just want people to feel comfortable. I don't want anyone to feel uneasy, I don't want anyone to feel inferior, I don't want anyone to feel small."
Brian: "The first time I saw you play was at Leeds, Town & Country. And I remember very, very well that this guy had thrown his shoes onstage, and you got him up onstage and were asking his name, and he replied, 'Woarggghhh!' And you went, 'Well, Woarggghh, make sure you take a hot bath when you go home.' And then you gave him his shoes back, and he was so freaked out about being onstage with you. That was a wonderful moment, it brought everything down."
Dave: "But that's when the allure drops, when people think, 'Shit, what's that guy doing onstage? He's normal.' And then they see something like Placebo and think, 'This is more like it. This is a show.' I want to see someone onstage I could never be. I want to see A STAR. Often it's almost self-destructive to say, 'Don't think of me so highly. Don't think I'm someone special. I just play guitar, and I spent a couple of thousand dollars making an album, and I put it out.' Am I supposed to be a marionette? That makes no sense at all."
Brian: "When you go to the supermarket, do you get recognised? Is that why you grew a beard?"
Dave: "No. No, not at all."
Brian: "I ask you that because I want to be in your position in a couple of years."
Dave: "Well, OK. There's people who see that as threatening, there's people who see it as flattering. It's strange. If somebody comes up and says, 'Oh my God, yeah, that's you, I really love what you do', how are you going to react? Hide away in your basement, unable to cope with people telling you they like you? Fuck no. You're going to say 'Thank you very much.' It doesn't happen that often and when it does happen you should feel happy about it...until you feel claustrophobic and surrounded by people who want to tear your hair out, freak out. That doesn't happen to me."
Brian: "That's kind of how I feel. I get love letters, but I also get letters from really fucked up teenagers. Sometimes the letters go, 'Thank you, cos when I listen to your records I feel like there's a friend for me out there somewhere', and sometimes it's as extreme as 'When I listen to your records, I feel like I don't have to cut myself as much as I would if I didn't.' And that fucks with your head, because you start wondering about what sort of responsibility you have - when, in fact, you don't.
"The responsibility you have is to yourself, you're expressing yourself because you need to, because you'd be depressed, an alcoholic, a junkie if you didn't. What's amazing is that things happen and you don't have very much control. I don't have control over what Everett's going to go away and write about me..."
Dave: (laughing) "I know what you mean."
Brian: "You give away a lot of control being in a band. It involves so much."
Dave: "To me, it's insular. To me, it's not about losing control, it's about not giving something away to millions of people. It's about setting some goals and achieving things that you want to achieve. Making rock music is fine and dandy, it's a lot of fun. Is it going to last forever? No. So what do you do? Oh, you get to score a movie. That's amazing. After that, you think rock music's the most inane fucking circus you've ever seen in your life."
Brian: "OK. I'll ask you one last question. When you're 33, what are you going to do next?"
Dave: "I don't know. And you? How old are you now?"
Brian: "I'm 24."
Dave: "What are you going to do when you're 33?"
Brian: "I'm going to make movies. David's done it, Courtney's done it, Madonna's done it. They all have. But the difference between them and me is that I have a degree from university."
Dave: "Well, there you go. And there's nothing like a certificate to get your foot in the door."
Laughter. Dave gets up to leave.
Dave: "I hope you're the most famous man in America. Be cool."
Brian: "You too."
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