Cast your mind back to 1998, and you may well recall that it was a relatively big year for landmark events in popular culture. Titanic swept the board at the Oscars, Google lurched into life and Sex And The City burst onto television screens across the globe. It was also the year that Placebo released the album which would come to define not just their career, but an entire moment in alternative culture.
If the musical landscape of late 90s Britain seemed almost tailor-made for Placebo’s curiously sleazy outsider sound, it’s because they pretty much created it themselves. While the band had enjoyed some success with their 1996 self-titled debut, its follow-up Without You I’m Nothing captured the imagination of a legion of music fans who found themselves at odds with the “straight lads from the pub” culture that came to dominate alternative music as the 90s drew to a close. “There wasn't really a scene for us,” the band’s co-founder, Stefan Olsdal, tells Louder. He’s joined us via telephone from a bustling cafe in London to discuss the album’s 20th anniversary, which falls almost to the day of our conversation. “We didn't really know where we fitted in that current music scene.”
So, they went ahead and made their own. “We weren't a British band, we weren't the straight lads from the pub, we were the cross-dressing weirdos who were playing this kind of romantic punk. I think we were just trying to forge our own identity. So it was these teething issues, and trying to find out who the hell we were, and in an environment which which didn't feel like like home.”
The result was an album Olsdal describes as having “much more depth and width than the first.” Where Placebo had been a scrappy, tongue-in-cheek exploration of sexuality and gender – or “a high-octane celebration of being in your early 20s and taking life by the balls” – WYIN turned Placebo’s sound inwards, tightening and refining it. And while the success of their debut had opened more doors for the band – “touring, success, the lifestyle” – it hadn’t come without a price. “When it came to the second album, it was a bit like, 'Holy shit what just happened?!'” says Olsdal. “We were having some bad days and didn't realise why we were feeling that, or how to process our emotions. Couple that with a windowless basement studio, and I think some of the tracks became more introspective, and started to delve a little bit further into the darker recesses of human emotions.”
Their darker sound ended up paying dividends: forget not being part of any scene, with WYIN, Placebo single-handedly carved out a space entirely their own. “I think we were just wanting to prove ourselves still,” says Olsdal. “I think at that time we still felt that people weren't really getting us, even though we had some success, commercially and artistically. We wanted to just show what we were, in terms of us as people, as lyricists and as musicians.”
They succeeded, and suddenly, the band were embraced by thousands of young people struggling to find their place in the world.
The band hadn’t realised – nor were they fully mentally prepared for – the album to take off like it did. “Mentally we were in that basement studio, you know? That's where our heads were at – our real heads were there,” says Olsdal. “But we were arrogant little pricks as well, so we thought everything we did was amazing. This whole enabling machine was kicking in and our egos were quite inflated. We were in our early 20s, and in your early 20s you're immortal, you're like Superman. We were sort of embodying its success with our mouths and our egos for sure. So I guess we were like, 'Yeah, we fucking deserve this' [laughs]. So as it was happening we were lapping it up. But did we expect it? Yeah, I think a part of us was thinking that we were the bee's knees. And I think if any band tells you that they don't want to be the biggest band in the world, then they're kind of lying.”
However, it wasn’t the fairytale it should've been. As their popularity skyrocketed, a feeling of disassociation began to hang heavy over the band. “There was an overriding sense of loneliness, of isolation and the disconnection,” says Olsdal. “We were starting to realise that people didn't really see us human beings. We also realised that in order to do this well, we had to be away from any kind of stability. There were some sacrifices to be made and we weren't really that equipped to process emotions. There were a lot of days spent in the pub trying to make us feel better.
“It felt like two very separate worlds. I remember walking around in Manhattan and the cover of WYIN was just plastered in shop windows and Tower Records, but I just felt this extreme disconnection with it. So it was like, 'Yeah, this it's happening, but I am so not there’. Because I was just this lost kid, it was just overwhelming. So a lot of it I couldn't enjoy because I was just trying to deal with all this stuff – my own stuff – and it was just blowing up on the outside, being faced with microphones every day. Most days I just dreaded it, because I just did not know what I wanted to say to the world. The only place I was comfortable was making the music in this kind of womb-like situation that me and Brian created back in his council flat in London back in ’94."
Ultimately, relief came from the support Olsdal and his bandmate Brian Molko were able to offer each other. “It was blowing up and I just remember telling myself 'Okay, Stef, you might not be appreciating this now and you might be going through some shit. But this is fucking amazing. Stick with it – this too shall pass’. And some days I was just thinking 'I don't want all this, I don't want all this!' you know? But I stuck with it, held on to Brian for dear life – kind of held on to each other for dear life. We weathered the storm, together.”
“It was the madness of it all – which, like I said before, we devoured. We loved it. But at the same time, it was this mixed bag of how to remain sane this in the madness of it all, and at this point we really held onto each other. Hard. We had to remain true to our art and true to ourselves and sometimes that's hard. It's trying to figure out what your identity is and then having the strength to fight for it on a daily basis.”
Their dedication to sticking up for their identity, no matter how ‘weird’ it might have seemed, or how difficult it was for them as people, cemented their devoted fanbase. “We were very vulnerable and honest in our lyrics and in the way we spoke about ourselves and what we felt was important – be true to yourself, try to stand up for who you are, even though you might get knocked down for it,” says Olsdal. “What happened was that Placebo concerts became like a congregation of outsiders, these cute misfits that just didn't know where else to go, and they came to a place where there was misfits on stage. Me and Brian grew up in our bedrooms, trying to learn our instruments and didn't really have any friends, so I guess that was the beauty of it.”
Much as they love their fans, Olsdal recalls that too came with a darker side. “Surely enough, in the first couple of rows we'd start to get Brian Molko clones,” he laughs. “Imitation is the highest form of flattery. So, yeah, there was this kind of ‘cult’ that was starting to happen. With that came a lot of adoration – a lot of people who just found a friend in Placebo and a safe space to be themselves. But also at the same time, we started to get some slightly more obsessive fans. So with this whole price of validation also came the beginning of the isolation where we felt that we just could not live our ‘normal’ lives. Just to be who we are was getting more difficult. I think to this day is something that we're still struggling with. So it all came at a price – it was great, and I'm really thankful for it. But there are sacrifices to be made. I guess that was a sacrifice.”
But the album also provided the band with countless happy moments; dozens of the kind of experience which might come to define your entire life, not just your career. Collaborating with David Bowie on a version of the album’s title track was one of them. “We had the amazing opportunity to be boosted by the legend that is David Bowie,” says Olsdal. “He phoned up about a month [after the album was released] and basically says that he'd fallen in love with one of the tracks. He said 'Either I cover this myself, or you let me come and sing on it’. And we were like 'Er, no, that's alright David, you can come and sing on our version, you don't have to do your own recording!' So in New York we got together with Tony Visconti, his longtime producer, and David and he got to sing his part on this track. We were just these wide-eyed fanboys drooling every time he approached.
“It was just one of those surreal moments where I was just looking down to make sure my feet were on the ground. So there was this confirmation that what was happening and what we were doing was the right thing. Just the validation of, 'You're not shit!”
Another of the album’s most curious stories comes from one of its stand-out hits – the clanging, confrontational opener Pure Morning. Originally recorded as part of the album’s b-side sessions, if the band had had their way, it never would’ve made the album at all. “I remember going into our label and playing them the b-sides that we just recorded,” Olsdal recalls. “We loved those b-side sessions because we could just go in and let our hair down, be experimental, bring out the toy instruments and the talking parrot and saxophone. We wrote Pure Morning in a day [during those sessions], thinking nothing of it.
“Then we took it to the label and they just flipped over it and said 'This has to be on the album'. We're like 'No fucking way!' The album was finished, it had nothing to do with the rest of the album, so we were like 'No, no, no, this is a b-side'. They convinced us, like 'Give it a chance, it might just do something for you.' Then that became a bit of an albatross around our neck, because we didn't really think of it much on its artistic merit, but it's one of those things where songs have their own lives and you just have to let them free. It served us well, but it was just one of those flukes that then became an quite an important one for the band.
“I look at it for its production values, and I listen to the lyrics and they make me chuckle. I think about the people who were around us at that time, and it's from a time and a place. It's just moronic the way it starts, out – it's such a simple song, but you can't knock it. Sometimes two chords is all you need.”
After 20 years of reflection, Olsdal accepts the album as a document of a wonderful, if complicated, part of his life. “I can't really listen to it, I'll only hear the flaws,” he laughs. “But I think it gets easier with time to get some kind of perspective on what kind of impact, and what kind of role it had. It felt like the right time to [celebrate it] and give fans especially another chance to relive it, share memories and tell their stories.
“There's seven records, and… it's not the worst one, that's for sure. There’s others that are slightly more flawed. But then again, there's an expression in Japanese about there being a perfection in the imperfection. So its flaws and imperfection are what makes it perfect, because it is what it is. It is what we were in the studio at that time – as musicians, as human beings, we we did our best. And that's all you can ask of someone. Thereby, it's beautiful.”