The alt-rockers brought gender fluidity into the 90s mainstream – and are now reckoning with climate apocalypse, surveillance culture and how to escape our horrific reality
On the screen of my phone, Brian Molko is trying to dodge the camera’s gaze. I’m in Colorado, video calling him in London, watching him chain smoke from across the Atlantic. He sometimes casts glances at the lens, mostly doing his best to forget it’s there.
Over the past 25 years, Molko’s band Placebo have often grappled with the question of image; with being seen, photographed and surveilled. Alongside co-writer and multi-instrumentalist Stefan Olsdal, Molko has carved out a dark and daring aesthetic universe, wrangling topics deemed taboo within alternative rock and culture. There are Placebo songs about abuse, co-dependency, violence and addiction; many seem to ring out from past the end of the world. In 1999, a few years after David Bowie took notice of the band and invited them to open for him – they later duetted on a version of the Placebo song Without You I’m Nothing – REM’s Michael Stipe dedicated It’s the End of the World As We Know It to Placebo at a festival in Belgium.